The year was 2008. (Duh—see above.) I was a freshman in college who’d managed to amass a really great group of friends while still feeling terrifically lonely. Depression! It’s like that!
Anyway, even though I did go around a lot of the time with homesickness sitting in my stomach like an undigestable glob of gum, it wasn’t the grimmest of grim times. I was just figuring out who I was when removed from the only context I’d ever known, which is thrilling and difficult and an act of creative perseverance…
…kind of like writing a novel! (What a sophisticated segue that was.) Anyway, November came and I was ON IT, because so far in college I had basically nothing to do (I mean, classes, I guess, but compared to being trapped in a high school for a seven-hour block every day, college felt like a breeze), so I loaded up my minifridge with frozen Amy’s burritos and barricaded myself in my dorm room to write. And this time, I was writing YA. Also this time—although I didn’t know it at the time—I was going to win.
I don’t know what prompted the switch, but it was a good idea, at least in terms of voice: I could write much more convincingly in the voice of a 17-year-old contemporary American girl than I could in the voice of a 21-year-old Irish warrior princess or whatever.
In retrospect, I probably should have suspected something was up from the beginning.
There I was, like any other Sunday afternoon, performing my traditional pre-homework ritual of procrastinating by watching Law and Order: SVU reruns on my laptop, when I heard my mom yell for me.
“Annie? Could you come here for a minute?”
Expert teenage daughter that I am, I clapped on my headphones and relaxed into my pillows, hoping to buy myself a few extra minutes of precious screen time by invoking the so sorry Mom, couldn’t hear you! defense.
Rereading this, it’s VERY SPOOKY how nearly identical this opening is to the opening of my actual novel that is going to be published (WHO’S THAT GIRL, HarperCollins 2017, tell your friends!!) Am I plagiarizing myself? Do I only have ONE LIST of plot point—a zany family, including long-suffering parents, a tough-talkin’ best friend character, and some type of Hot Boy—that I recycle forever and ever?! Troubling questions, but let’s get back to poor Annie.
“The thing is, you made quite an impression on your great-aunt as a child, and she was always delighted that we had named our first daughter after her.”
“Mom, I met her once. I don’t think she could have been too taken with me.”
“She came to your christening, and she used to come visit us when you were a baby. She lived here in December Bay her whole life, you know.”
“And that’s the thing. Annie, your great-aunt left you her house.”
“That has to be a mistake. I’m seventeen. I can’t have a house.” Most seventeen-year-old girls get a new cell phone or a later curfew as a surprise present, but no. I end up with a house.
LOL, just like Nanny and Hot Dad novel, everything takes place in December Bay!! Except now December Bay is a made-up town in Maryland instead of a made-up town in Maine. IMPORTANT DISTINCTION.
Anyway, Annie has a house! I think I wanted there to be an exciting house inheritance plot because then there could be scenes of extensive renovations and consequential insights into Family Secrets that are revealed in the walls of the things. This is an idea I pretty much lifted wholesale from Nora Roberts’s Tribute, which I had read the previous summer and which makes a LOT LESS SENSE when applied to a seventeen-year-old girl.
But never mind that, because it is time to meet our Hot Boy, the brother of Annie’s BFF!
“Present,” a deep voice said from the staircase behind us. Charlie was a year older than Rose, but you could have sworn they were twins. The same deep brown hair and eyes, the same biting Scottish humor, the same incredibly broad shoulders filling out a soccer jersey beneath an army surplus jacket…okay, maybe that was just Charlie. What can I say?
This marks an important turning point in my development as an artist, when I switch from IRISH men to SCOTTISH ones. A brogue’s a brogue, I guess! Again—why is an eighteen-year-old Scottish citizen living in the US? I don’t know, December Bays seem to attract immigrants from overseas! Anyway, good news:
Rose nodded sympathetically. “Well, that bitch Nicole decided to dump him last night. His girlfriend since July,” she added, noting my blank look. “Over the Internet, no less.”
RUDE!!! Poor heartbroken Scottish Charlie. Anyway, Annie goes to school because that’s a good way to waste time if you’re writing a YA novel, and eventually her parents strike her a bargain about her house:
“Annie. Your mother and I have discussed this, and we wouldn’t ask you to do it if we didn’t think you weren’t capable of it. It’s completely within our rights as your guardians to withhold the house until you’re 18, or to petition your great-aunt’s estate for ownership. But we really think this is something you can handle, kiddo. And we’ll be there to help.”
“So what am I supposed to do, Dad? Just grab your toolbox and set up shop in the basement?”
“We’ve set aside a monthly budget for your projects, partially from our savings and partially from some investments we’ve held since you were born that we decided to cash in. You’ll have four hundred dollars a month. I know it’s not much, but it’s all we can afford to give you right now. It’ll be your job to hire someone who can survey the house and do a good job.”
Ughhhh, this is the stupidest thing ever. First of all, four hundred dollars a month is ZERO MONEY. Second of all, what parents in their right MINDS would let a seventeen-year-old girl oversee SIGNIFICANT RENOVATIONS TO A HISTORICALLY SIGNIFICANT HOUSE? These questions do not matter and will not be answered, because the OBVIOUS reason is so that Annie can hire SOME HUNKY PERSON to do the work on the house.
“It’s not a crisis. I mean, sure, it’s got a lot of the elements of a crisis. It’s more like a situation, really…” I was babbling. I clapped my mouth shut and tried to explain. “My great-aunt died, and she was named Annalise and that’s my name too—that is, I’m named for her, and, uh, well, she left me this house. Her house. My house.” I paused, unsure if I should continue. Charlie was looking directly at me. I’d never realized how dark his eyes were. “And so now…I have to fix it.”
“There. Happy? Now leave us alone.” Rose snatched the last cookie from her brother’s hands and ate it in one bite.
“I could work on it.”
CHARLIE. Charlie! Thank God you conveniently exist! And are hot! Naturally, he and Annie get into an argument on the way to see the house, and he does some ADORABLE THINGS
“Really, I am! The house is amazing. And she could have just given it to anyone, I guess, or sold it, or given it to charity…” I trailed off, watching Charlie. He was looping behind me on his bike, coming around to my right and riding in front of me again.
“What are you doing?” I slowed my pace, and he continued to circle me.
He shrugged. “Dunno. ‘S hard to bike slowly. Keep going.”
I smiled and took a few more steps. His tires crunched as he turned, cutting a smaller circle this time.
“You’re going to fall off your bike.”
“Nah. I’m too careful.”
“Well…” I felt like laughing at him. He looked ridiculous, standing on the pedals and twisting the handlebars with that goofy, angular smile on his face. “You’re slowing me down. It’s going to take us forever to get there like this.”
Goofy, angular smiles. Good grief. Anyway, somehow the eighteen-year-old contractor correctly assesses everything wrong with the seventeen-year-old’s house, and they end up going out to breakfast (people are constantly eating baked goods in this book), where OF COURSE the waitress thinks they’re a couple:
I jumped in, trying to salvage my dignity. “I’m, uh, not actually his girlfriend. Just a friend.”
The waitress gave a small pout. “That’s a shame, dear.” She winked at Charlie, who smiled gamely. I, on the other hand, felt like I was doing the world’s worst job of masking abject terror.
Sassy waitresses! God bless ’em. I also really liked the phrase “abject terror” as a #teen. But speaking of CONTRIVED SITUATIONS, the phone rings! In Charlie’s butt pocket!!!
“Christ,” Charlie said. “That’s my phone. Would you…oh, well, nevermind…”
“No,” I said, wanting to help. “I’ll get it.”
Charlie screwed up his face as he adjusted his burden. Was it just me, or was his face slightly red? “Well…all right. It’s, ah…just in my back pocket there…”
“Ah,” I said. I felt my own face go furiously crimson. “I’ll just…” I lowered my bag to the ground and reached towards the back of his jeans. Oh my God. I willed myself to be calm. I was not about to touch Charlie MacAnder’s ass. That was too weird. I was just grabbing his phone. Doing him a favor. It could be an emergency, right? I slipped my hand just barely into his pocket, grabbing the phone with the tips of my fingers and pulling it out like it was on fire.
“Got it,” I said, smiling broadly to show that I wasn’t some pervy girl who had just been dying for an excuse to touch his butt.
This is glorious in its awkwardness. But anyway, just in case you forgot, there is also a FAMILY MYSTERY angle to this book—no matter that we’re already 24,000 words deep and maybe it should’ve been introduced sooner! Annie and her BFF Rose find a ~mysterious photo~ in the house:
“It’s…it’s my great-aunt,” I said. “It must be.” I didn’t know how I knew it was her, but I was certain it was. Something about it just sort of…spoke to me. “But I don’t know who that guy is.” On the opposite side of the porch, leaning against a pillar, was a young man, maybe 19 or 20 years old. He was tall, even taller than she was, it seemed, and smiling back at Great-Aunt Annalise. His clothes were simple, almost shabby-looking—the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, a worn hat on his head.
Another Hot Boy?!?! Hmm. Intrigue abounds. And then VERY ALSO COINCIDENTALLY, Annie’s choice of paint color prompts her to remember ANOTHER CLUE:
“Yeah. Lady Lavender.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I was struck by a vivid pang of realization. Something I’d read… “Wait a second!” I dashed down the front stairs and into the dining room. Whipping the lid off the box, I dug through the papers until I found what I was looking for, one about midway through. I scanned it furiously until my eyes finally settled on what I was looking for.
“Annie?” Charlie came in from the hallway behind me, a puzzled look on his face. “What is it?”
“This,” I said, waving the paper around in front of him. “Look!”
Charlie leaned back just in time to miss being struck by my excited gesticulations. “I can hardly see it when you move it around like that,” he said dryly. I gave him a look of slight exasperation and brought it back to my eye level.
“Tower room,” I read, “lavender. Tell M. and J. to order proper paint color—A. very particular about her bedroom.” I held the paper to my chest and grinned. “So not only did Great-Aunt Annalise have the tower bedroom painted lavender just like me, but she also had it painted by J.! Which means…if J. was doing painting, he must have worked for the Westwood Brothers!” I did a little happy leap of excitement. Knowing this, having this—maybe now I could find him, whoever he was. This was a sign, I was sure of it, a sign that J. was someone I had to uncover.
But there’s no time for that YET, because Annie has to stop by the MacAnders’ house with one of her little sisters in tow so that we can get to Contrived Situation Number Three:
The door swung open to reveal…Charlie. In a pair of worn jeans and…nothing else. My heart started beating quintuple pace as I gaped at the lean lines of his arms, his chest, his waist…oh, God. Say something! I opened my mouth, but no sound came out. Luckily, Charlie didn’t seem to notice my temporary leave from my senses.
“Hello there,” Charlie said, his gaze flicking from Sophie in her ridiculous skirt to serious-faced Caroline to Ella, who was spinning, arms straight out, in loopy circles behind me. I gave a nervous smile, and Charlie, apparently unable to hide his amusement at the situation he’d found himself presented with, grinned back.
“Hi,” I croaked, willing myself not to stare at him. Behind me, I heard Ella stop her spinning and felt a tug at the hem of my shirt.
“Annie,” she said plaintively. “he’s not wearing a shirt!”
FROM THE MOUTHS OF BABES. ABOUT BABES. It’s just an all-around babefest up here in December Bay 2.0. Which is good news for Annie, because then KISSING HAPPENS.
“Embarassing?” Charlie said, furrowing his brow. “I think I’m the one who ought to be feeling embarrassed…”
I couldn’t help but smile. “No, you shouldn’t! I mean, you’re a great guy, and I like you a lot…” Really a lot. “…but we just…what did we just…?”
“Well,” he said, stuffing his hands in his pockets and leaning in towards me, “I would hate to have to be the one to explain the mechanics to you…”
Twin flames of embarrassment sprung to my cheeks. It wasn’t exactly like I’d had much practice in this particular arena before, and now here I was, acting like a naïve idiot. I might as well have told him then and there that the last boy I had kissed was Henry Fagles (who had an unfortunate bowl-cut and bologna-breath) in third grade.
Twin flames of embarrassment! God, what a metaphor. Also, I am pretty sure I named Henry Fagles after the copy of The Odyssey that sat on my desk above my computer.
So things intensify somehow, one thing leads to another and Annie ends up drunk at a birthday party for Mr. MacAnder:
“Hi, Charlie,” I said, and he nodded hello. “Where’s Nicole?” It occurred to me in the dim recesses of my brain that that was not the best thing to ask him, especially when I was drunk and he was looking so…Charlie.
“Left,” Charlie said. “Are you drunk?” He didn’t sound judgmental, just curious.
I held up my forefinger and thumb. “A little,” I said. “What happened to your girlfriend?” The words were falling out of my mouth unbidden.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” Charlie said flatly. “Hasn’t been for a while. Told her to sod off just now.”
Even in my inebriated state, his words came through with piercing clarity. No Nicole? So that meant…
I remembered that my bible, Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies, discouraged use of the “other woman” as a plot device to keep your hero and heroine apart, but I was also lazy and dumb. Sorry, Nicole.
The remaining 10,000 or so words of the book is a mad dash to the finish line, with lots of sped-up exposition and hastily-plugged plot holes: the long and short of it is that Annie’s great-aunt ALSO had a love affair with one of her contractors BACK IN THE DAY:
I think about our days together this spring every minute. You did so make me laugh. Even if we can’t be together now, remembering can sustain me until we are free from others’ opinions to live our lives together. You will be my bride.
I hope you are well and happy. Please keep smiling, as you always do. Look at your lavender room and think of me.
Yours, always, with love, James.”
My fingers went slack, the paper fluttering to the table. No one said anything. At last, I spoke.
“She loved him,” I said simply. “Of course.” My voice was barely a whisper.
“I never knew,” my dad said, shaking his head. “All these years, she never married. It makes so much sense.”
And now Annie loves Hot Boy Charlie! Isn’t that cute and also convenient. And that’s the end…OR IS IT?!?!
Yes, there is tons of stuff that needed to be fixed. But go back to His Irish Bride from 2006 (or, you know, don’t, because it’s awful) and I think I made some strides. When I was a child, I wrote romance novels like a child, but when I became a college student, I put childish things behind me…
…or I did until the next year, when I hopped back on the Regency train with BLACKBURN’S BRIDE! (The segue is less sophisticated the second time. Twin flames of embarrassment are erupting in my cheeks, trust me.)